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The corset diet? Sorry, we need to loosen up about female beauty

We can forgive the return of the New Look – that hyper-feminine wasp-waisted style that Christian Dior first introduced in 1947.

Fashion is cyclical, after all, and just because the style is making a comeback on runways this year it doesn't mean that women are turning away from roles of power or authority. Worry not, Birkenstock-footed feminists.

Dior, it turns out, was a garden kook, and in his memoirs, he described the New Look as an expression of postwar elegance, a respite from box-like factory uniforms and fabric rationing. "I drew women-flowers," he wrote, describing his "fine waists like liana" vines and "wide skirts like corolla" (that's a whorl of petals) in his best horticultural language.

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Certainly, you can sport a reedy waist and blossoming skirt and still carry a big, thorny stick if you need to. Part of the art of being a woman is knowing how (and when) to play at being a lady.

What's truly disturbing is the New Torture – that is, the growing trend for achieving a tiny waist by way of the so-called Corset Diet, which is, in fact, not a diet at all but a gruelling practice of strapping yourself into a steel-bone corset that's significantly smaller than your actual waist. "Non-surgical gastric-band stomach reduction the Victorian way" is how the website describes the trend. It's the sort of thing you read and then re-read, lest you think you're back in the 1890s – or 1500s, when something called a stomacher was worn to cinch in the middle bits.

Jessica Alba told Net-a-Porter's The Edit magazine earlier this year that she used the corset diet to lose weight after two pregnancies. She wore a double corset, actually, night and day for three months. "It was sweaty but worth it," she is quoted as saying.

Research this corset-diet trend and you'll happen upon weird pictures of women whose torsos look like sausage links.One, the 24-year-old Michele Koebke in Berlin, is attempting to break the world record for the world's smallest waist. You can watch her on YouTube as she squeezes herself into a tightly laced corset that she wears around the clock. Her liver, presumably, is like a pillow that she can rearrange. And what are bowels if not bothersome stuffing that takes up too much space?

Currently, her waist is 40.6 centi– metres (or 16 inches). She wants to whittle it down to 38 cm, which is the middle measurement of Cathie Jung, who currently holds the Guinness World Record title. Jung describes her waist as being the size of "a jar of mayonnaise."

There's even a doctor in Hollywood, Alexander Sinclair, who told ABC News recently that a number of his celebrity clients follow the corset diet. That he has the appearance of a cheekbone-enhanced cosmetic-surgery addict doesn't do his credibility any favours – in my opinion, anyway – but that didn't deter a few cute female TV reporters from taking part in stunt-journalism and going on a "corset diet" trial in order to report on the merits and pain of what Victorian women described as a form of slavery.

Advocates claim that women can take 15.2 cm (or 6 inches) off their waistline by wearing the specially designed garment. Not surprisingly, several other doctors have voiced outrage about the trend, citing problems with acid reflux and pressure on the diaphragm. The trend has the feel of Fifty Shades of Grey – a little black-laced pain for some pleasure.

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I say it's time we all take a deep breath – if we can, that is – and come to peaceful terms with the tyranny of girth. On the one hand, it is a gauge for health. Health Canada uses waist circumference to assess health-risk classification. A waist circumference of greater than or equal to 88 cm for women (and 102 cm for men) can lead to an increased risk of developing health problems such as Type-2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and hypertension. According to the most current data from Statistics Canada, from between 2009 and 2011, 41 per cent of Canadian women were likely to have a waist circumference high enough to be associated with increased health risks.

But it's also a troublesome measurement of idealized womanhood. To me, the whole baby-bump-watching phenomenon of the past decade or so has little to do with the mini-me in utero and everything to do with the miraculous properties of the expandable female form and entrenched judgments about its value. To be fully female, we're supposed to grow big with child. And yet, to be sexual paragons of fertility, we're supposed to have a hip-to-waist ratio of a Barbie doll.

To that, I say, pass me a pain au chocolat. It is Saturday, a day to let ourselves out of the straitjacket of expectations. Besides, in my experience, with a few children, jobs, years, joys and disappointments under my Spanx, I have come to see my waistline as a fickle friend.

Sometimes, she is really in fine form, and I will cinch her up in the New Look and take her everywhere. And other times, she just does whatever the hell she wants, and nothing, not Spanx, not Wheat Belly diet books, will make any difference – so I shroud her strategically and carry on.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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